The famous anti-corruption investigation is losing public support, amid claims that Jair Bolsonaro’s Prosecutor General is trying to neuter the probe. The arrests and prosecutions of Operation Car Wash used to be the talk of the town in Brazil, dominating nightly news shows and the morning headlines. But with the constant crises over the last 18 months, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, Operation Car Wash increasingly feels like an afterthought, pushed further and further away from the front pages. Hit by media revelations about misdeeds, partisanship, and profiteering, the task force — as well as its main public face, former judge (and former Justice Minister) Sergio Moro — is looking for new credibility to keep their project and political ambitions alive.[restricted]
While it still has considerable public support, Operation Car Wash is no longer seen as a bipartisan anti-corruption crusade to modernize Brazil’s dysfunctional and unscrupulous state. Its supporters, along with those of Mr. Moro, are now protesting against Mr. Bolsonaro, whose election was largely ensured by the work of the probe and its leading judge.
Furthermore, Operation Car Wash can no longer count on the degree of uncritical media support it once had, leaving its enemies in Congress and the Supreme Court empowered to bleed its powers dry. As a latest example, House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and current Supreme Court Chief Justice Dias Toffoli are looking to pass a political quarantine that would bar former magistrates from seeking electoral office for eight years if they chose to leave the judiciary. Depending on the exact provisions of the legislation, this could effectively put an end to Mr. Moro’s political ambitions, which The Brazilian Report has covered extensively.
There is also some suggestion that the lead investigator of the Car Wash taskforce, federal prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, may be forced out in the near future by Jair Bolsonaro’s handpicked Prosecutor General Augusto Aras, who has accused the Car Wash taskforce of illegally investigating 38,000 Brazilian citizens.
On the weekend, Car Wash prosecutor Roberson Pozzobon claimed Mr. Aras was trying to dismantle the investigation, saying that “the beautiful institutional structure of the Federal Prosecution Service […] is under threat of being blatantly erased.”
A last gasp for credibility
Given the degree of opposition among Brazil’s political class and the declining popularity of the investigation, Operation Car Wash has been trying its best to save face and regain some of its old swagger by going after former Health and Foreign Minister and Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) presidential candidate Senator José Serra.
Operation Car Wash critics have frequently accused prosecutors of protecting the PSDB. Among a series of revelations from The Intercept Brasil’s Car Wash Leaks exposé was that Sérgio Moro had quashed an investigation into the dealings of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a leading figure of the PSDB. Now, by going after one of the founding members of the party in Mr. Serra, the Car Wash taskforce is seeking to regain some of its credibility as a genuinely non-partisan effort.
Mr. Serra has been a constant fixture on the political scene since his days as a student leader in the 1960s, though his brand of social democratic politics are on their way out. He is also widely seen as corrupt, thanks in part to his shoddy spell as Foreign Minister under the Michel Temer government. If he goes down, it further weakens the already in decline PSDB, as The Brazilian Report explained, perhaps further empowering the ascendant faction in the party led by São Paulo Governor João Doria.
This wing of the PSDB lacks any of the party’s social concerns or founding principles. Mr. Doria, for instance, campaigned under the “Bolsodoria” slogan in 2018, seeking to associate himself with Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign. Since then, Mr. Doria has become one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s main political enemies, despite sharing many of the same policies, especially in regards to public security and the economy.
A potential alliance between Mr. Doria and Sergio Moro could prove to be a winning one in 2022. Providing Mr. Moro is allowed to hold political office and Operation Car Wash is perceived as having helped the moderate right come to power by then, perhaps a new government could look more favorably on the investigation and restore some of its old powers. Even though Mr. Moro may be far less popular than he thinks he is.
The independence of Operation Car Wash
It is perhaps best to conceive of Operation Car Wash as not just an anti-corruption investigation that overstepped its mark in the zealous prosecution of misdeeds, but rather as a political faction in its own right, competing against others in Brazil. It has its own support base and allied social movements; it has established alliances — most notably with the U.S. Department of Justice — and it has even sought to secure its own source of funds by way of a private anti-corruption foundation with resources recovered from the Petrobras graft scheme.
While it was at the peak of its powers, it operated as an entity independent of the Federal Prosecution Service, despite technically being subjugated to it. Now, in retrospect, one has to ask how Operation Car Wash managed to gain enough power to bring down governments, while committing multiple abuses of its own mandate? In other words: who was watching the watchmen?
With an authoritarian president in office, set on dismantling the separation of powers and intervening in order to shield his family from investigation, Brazil’s anti-corruption crusade does not seem to have actually resulted in the weakening of political corruption. This seems particularly evident in the fact that Mr. Bolsonaro has gambled his political future on paying off corrupt ideology-free political parties that dominate Congress in return for support. All of this seems to amount to struggles amongst the political class, while a pandemic that has killed over 95,000 ravages the country.[/restricted]